The pilgrimage was never merely about rites and rituals, for it has always involved science and progress, culture and intellection, and economics and humanities. Here we delve into Hajj as a civilizational ecosystem that speaks volumes on efforts, opportunities and prospects; past, present and future. Unveiling stories and tales of morals, values and meaning worthy of being heard by the world over in an attempt to raise awareness of this glorious timeless journey, the amazing people running it and those fortunate enough to embark on it .
It was the evening of the second day of Dhu Al Hijjah of 1440 Hijri and as I was getting ready to leave for my office to pack my photography equipment, which I was to use later (to document pilgrims and the services provided for them at the holy ritual sites during the hajj season) when I heard my phone ring, and it was Heba Qadi on the other line. She asked me to write about my volunteer work experience for this blog. I genuinely welcomed her request as it gave me a much-welcomed spiritual push to write about an activity I have come to consider as a ‘life’. Yes, volunteering is a life of its own. But first, let me take you back to my humble beginnings in the fascinatingly wonderful world of volunteer work.
It all began in the year 1408. I was in fourth grade. There were no designations as such for “a volunteer” or “volunteering” as there is today. But as it were, it came to me in its best form as a Boy Scout – which I delved into with all the love and support of Scout Leader Professor Ibrahim Al-Najjar. At the time, I was a scrawny little kid wearing that good old uniform: a sky blue-colored shirt, gray pants, and a yellow handkerchief. I would head to the camp base from my house in Azziziyyah, on foot, which took from Asr to Maghreb prayer times. And though it was only a once-a-week occurrence, it was an immensely enjoyable experience. It was only us who chose to be Scouts, who could learn of new realms outside the tedious enclosures and mundane norms of family and school routines. And what we picked up and practiced in those days were the basics of social work and how to be of service to society, with no financial reward. Our work consisted of assisting the traffic police in directing traffic, but we also got to participate in the national tree planting week, national cleanliness campaigns, and the like. Then, over time, our work developed into helping the guests of God, which began by preparing bags of dates just before the month of Ramadan and going to the plazas of the Grand Mosque in Makkah prior to Maghreb prayer time to distribute them to the umrah pilgrims and at traffic stops as well. These types of activities continued for many years, in the company of Makkah’s elite Scouts leadership, namely: Ibrahim Al-Najjar, Mohammad Muhrab, Abdallah Bin Jahlan, Abdulhafez Aaref, Walid Felemban, and many more who proved selfless in their service to pilgrims.
I continued participating in social work after that but in other avenues and different ways and learned, in the process, the essence of volunteering. For me, it manifested itself in partnerships for orphaned children with significant organizations like Saudi Aramco through recreational programs for children. It also came in the form of organizing activities through volunteering programs which involved visiting nursing homes and societies for people with disabilities, but also other projects like distributing meals and clothing items to those in need.
In the year 1422, I started working for the Ministry of Hajj, and from there began a new learning journey into public service. It was also when Minister of Hajj HE, Dr. Mohammad Banten revived with great impetus the idea of fully activating the role of social work in the Ministry. It was only then that we received the green light to begin working on a meaningful program. We held many meetings and small workshops which culminated in launching a program called, “Be an Aid” on the 15th of Dhu Al-Qaidah of 1438. I was appointed executive director for the program. We began with a team of eight people, headed by Hussein Al-Shareef under direct general supervision of His Excellency the Minister of Hajj, Mohammad Banten.
The first 15 days since the launch of the program, our team was working – without exaggeration – around the clock. The number of kingdom-wide volunteering applicants was off the charts, exceeding ten thousand volunteers! They hailed from all walks of life, they were individuals, groups, Saudis, non-Saudi, males, and females. By God, an incredible feeling of pride and responsibility surged within me during that time. The work consisted of offering health services to pilgrims, translation services, and guidance. The volunteers participated by providing aid like spraying cold water, distributing cartons of water, ready-made food, and gifts to the pilgrims.
I recall once that I was in our headquarters. It was nearly 2 in the afternoon on the 11th of Dhu Al-Hijjah when one of our female volunteers appeared. She was arriving from a field trip, where she was offering health services. And she said, “There’s an entire camp where the pilgrims need foot bandages, as most of them don’t have shoes!” A group from “Be An Aid,” that included within it, students from the Medical College of Makkah’s Um Al-Qura University, went to visit the camp to see what can be done. I had also contacted Director General of Hajj and Umrah Gifts Society, Professor Mansour Al-Aamer, to inform him of the situation and our urgent needs. He went on to provide 2,500 pairs of shoes that we transported from storage in record time. Glory to God, I felt at that moment, that God helped us ease the way of providing aid to them. Especially knowing that, based on statistics, most pilgrims are elderly and/or have diabetes. Praise be to God, that created for us this pillar of worship.
How proud I felt when I could stand behind my brothers and sisters in volunteering as they provided services for the Guests of God! How proud I felt to work with a team made up of the sons and daughters of this country, to help put a smile on the face of an exhausted hajj pilgrim or return a lost child to his family.
“Be an Aid” has many stories — One of my favorite anecdotes is of a volunteer and her brother who came all the way from Riyadh on the day of Arafat so they could pray Isha with us in Masjid Nasir at the Iskan District, which was our meeting/launch point when heading for Mena, to support us in our service of the pilgrims.
Another one was when a 63 years old volunteer called me personally and said, “Why won’t you take someone as old as me! Why didn’t you accept me on the platform?” to which I laughed and replied; “Mashallah, we are almost maxed out. It’s a high number this year, but sure, we’ll take you, of course.” He was approved and participated with us in translation and guidance, and we truly benefited from his expertise in this vital work.
I am all thanks to the Lord of Both Worlds for those supplications which poured on us from pilgrims when they learned that these young people – both men and women – are nothing more than willing volunteers demanding only the blessings of God in return of their services. Our work as volunteers was not just limited to the ritual sites of Mena and Arafat. We even reached the plazas of the Grand Mosque not to mention the departure points for pilgrims such as Jeddah’s King Abdul-Aziz International Airport.
Despite the afore-mentioned efforts, this never-ending journey of giving continues to be for and by the grace of Almighty Allah. It was for the varied supplication of many parents, that I learned the meaning of one of my father’s prayers most recently—God made for you worship; and prepared you for worship.”
Let me, in closing, remind myself and my dear readers of a saying of our noble messenger peace be upon him: “Mankind has 360 joints, for each one a charity is owed, a kind word you say to someone is charity, helping out your brethren is charity, a drink of water you provide someone is charity, removing a branch to the side of the road is charity.”
Our volunteer work in all its different shapes and forms is charity, and what we desire from it is the glory and grace of God. I recall yet another of Prophet Muhammad’s sayings; “A faithful believer in support of another faithful believer is likened to the bricks on a wall – constantly reinforcing each other.”